How 'Public Markets' in Birmingham, AL Food Desert Catalyze Community
A crowd of Birmingham residents gathered at a community college parking lot in 2011 to welcome a new sight to the neighborhood: fresh fruits and vegetables for sale. While the mayor and other local leaders delivered speeches, shoppers browsed tables piled high with collard greens, okra, peaches, green beans, melons—produce grown less than 100 miles away but seldom seen in local food stores.
This volunteer-led Southwest Fresh Market is part of an ambitious plan initiated by REV Birmingham, a nonprofit working with local government, business, and community partners to find solutions to a common challenge: how to connect urban, often low-income residents with small farmers looking to boost sales. Making the link is a “win-win,” says Andy Williams, one of the growers at the Southwest Fresh Market. “The farmer gets a guaranteed base of consumers, and the neighborhood gets good food and local jobs. Right now it’s a missed opportunity.”
Birmingham has seen grocery stores shut their doors in recent decades, as big box retailers on the outskirts of the city have become the norm. Today, many of the city’s food stores are restaurants and small corner stores that mostly sell packaged, frozen, and prepared foods. A recent survey found that more than 40 percent of Birmingham residents live in areas defined as “food deserts,” neighborhoods with extremely limited access to grocery stores selling healthy food.
These barriers to healthy living are mirrored in the area’s health statistics: Birmingham is the largest city in Jefferson County, where nearly three-quarters of residents are overweight or obese and more than 11 percent of adults have been diagnosed with diabetes.
Leading an effort to reverse this trend is Samuel Crawford, REV Birmingham's director of business development. He admits he was initially skeptical about the idea of bringing healthy food businesses back into Birmingham, but he changed course after a series of meetings with advocates at the Health Action Partnership, a local public health coalition. “A farmer finally made it clear to me that there was money and jobs in food,” he says. Healthy food is much more than a public health issue, he realized: it can be a catalyst for community economic development.
REV Birmingham is working to create "public markets" around the city, partnering with neighborhood groups to engage local residents in planning all aspects of the markets, from operations to outreach to product mix. They have seen mixed success so far. After two seasons the Southwest Fresh Market has developed a steady base of customers and recently started accepting SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) to expand its reach to the lowest-income residents. But a market in a neighboring community, while initially well received, failed to take off.
Taylor Clark, REV Birmingham’s market coordinator, is optimistic but realistic about the road ahead. “Ultimately, we’ve realized that developing a successful market takes time,” says Clark. “It can take months—if not years—to build a loyal following.”
REV Birmingham has learned some lessons that other cities can apply to their own efforts:
1. Collaborate across sectors. It used to be that farmers, nutrition and hunger organizations, food start-ups, and government agencies would work separately toward similar goals. New, stronger partnerships among these groups are helping to increase the reach and sustainability of their efforts. Establishing a food policy council is one way to establish and maintain connections at a regional level.
2. Employ data- and community-driven strategies. The public market project was informed by a series of studies that evaluated the number of Birmingham residents living in areas without a grocery store, assessed local demand, and outlined potential market models. The assessments benefited from the input of people who had a stake in the outcome, including food and farming groups, local businesses, public health agency workers, and others.
3. Lay the policy infrastructure. REV Birmingham quickly realized that local policy changes were necessary to make the public markets program work. For instance, to make sure produce reached the people who needed it the most, the organization has been working closely with the city to help markets overcome barriers to accepting SNAP benefits.
4. Establish accountability. Even in a casual working culture, where agreements may be cemented with a smile and a handshake, REV Birmingham quickly learned the value of addressing clearly who will be responsible for all duties, large and small, in addition to setting up times for regular communication and troubleshooting. For instance, the planning group for one market had a great reception from community leaders and assumed all the logistics were in place. But soon after the launch, it became apparent they had not designated enough volunteers to handle all the details and needed to revisit who was doing what.
5. Build leadership within the community. REV Birmingham realized early on that it was critical to involve local leaders and groups in all stages of planning the public markets. This helped create a greater sense of ownership among the community—which was invaluable for recruiting residents to help with planning, generating publicity, and advising organizers on the appropriate mix of products. Participatory planning can be challenging, but often it’s the only way to help develop market models that will work in communities that many food and grocery companies have overlooked.
Read more about local enterprises aimed at rebuilding the food system in Birmingham, Alabama, and learn lessons and get resources for other cities and towns across the country.
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Original images by Gary Tramontina for ChangeLab Solutions